Under The Covers

Not all cover songs are bad...Here are a few of my favorites.
September 01, 2008
I have occasionally expressed annoyance with the idea of cover songs. I often feel that the first interpretation is the only one that should be listened to. I eventually re-thought that position when looking over the course of my musical tastes. I realized that many songs I liked were covers, and they were performed just as well as the originals, with some bringing in a spin that made them even more interesting.

Herewith, I would like to present a few of my favorite covers.

I'll start off with a song about music itself. The song? "I Love Rock 'N' Roll" as performed by Joan Jett and The Blackhearts.

This ode to the power of rock music was originally performed by a group called The Arrows in 1975. I heard their version on YouTube and it sounded good, but it just sounded a little mellow.

Joan Jett and The Blackhearts covered it on the 1981 album of the same time, with the title track charting in 1982. I think they did the song better. The guitars kicked harder, the drumming was a little more tense, and finally, there was Jett herself. Her vocals were stunning. She bought an attitude to the song that said "Attention, fuckers! I'm in charge here! My terms...My rules!". That's what I got from the famed chorus:

"I love rock and roll,
So put another dime in the jukebox, baby.
I love rock and roll,
So come on, take your time and dance with me!".

That's an invite that grabs you by the throat and drags you to the floor, and you go along willingly.

Another cover I like along these lines, although it's of an entirely different genre, is Sharon Bryant's version of "Foolish Heart".

The first female vocalist for famed R&B group Atlantic Starr, she left the group in the 80s for a solo career. Her first success as a solo artist came with this 1989 version of a ballad by Steve Perry of Journey, who first performed it for his 1984 album "Street Talk".

His version was great, but to my ears, Bryant's version has an edge over his, if only because of the production. The backing sounds relaxed, and that goes along well with Bryant's vocals. She makes this song about the difficulties of love a very peaceful one, at the end coming to grips with what her relationship was and where it might go next.

This was especially reflected in the video for the song, which featured Bryant lounging around the house and reminisicing about her old love. At the end, her new boyfriend appears. This boyfriend is played, in a cameo, by Denzel Washington.

Celebrity cameos are always enjoyable in videos, and Denzel's appearance was great. I saw this video on YouTube and Denzel was a really smooth guy in this vid. It was only a few seconds of an appearance, but I was like "Damn. This guy knows what to do. I'd like to be like him". Well, one can try, right?

For the next track, I would like to mention a song that may not seem to be a cover. That song is "Manic Monday" by The Bangles.

We all know and love this song about how hard it can be to wake from a beautiful dream and spend your day in a nightmare. We all sing along to it, although the lyrics can be modified depending on your gender. It's a great light pop-rock-oriented track. The song was composed by Prince. Even though it may not necessarily sound like a Prince track, he was the one behind it. He had originally wanted the track to be for another group, though. That group was the follow-up to Vanity 6 known as Apollonia 6.

I heard a demo of their version of YouTube and I enjoyed it. I prefer the Bangles' version, though. What I prefer about it is how the vocals come out...As opposed to the pouting of Apollonia 6, The Bangles' vocals have a more wholesome attitude to them.

Lyrics like:

"6:00 already,
I was just in the middle of a dream.
I was kissing Valentino by a crystal-blue Italian stream":

May seem raunchy, but The Bangles make the song seem wholesome. Very interesting interpretation.

Now it's time to inject some testosterone into the article by bringing in the much-missed Robert Palmer and his cover of "I Didn't Mean To Turn You On".

This song was originally performed by R&B singer Cherelle in 1984, but I think that, as good as her version, Robert Palmer did it best by giving it a different spin. Cherelle's vocals are edgy...Her vocals say "stay away from me, you fucker". Palmer's vocals, on the other hand, come across as saying "Whoa. Hold on a moment!". His version of the song basically means that he wants to take time with where this relationship is going. That's a very interesting take on it. He was quite a smooth guy.

The video was great, too, once again featuring the Palmer girls, as I call them, only this time they're dressed up like French showgirls. Do they look good? Oui, oui, monsieur (At least I think so).

The next track I would like to talk about is a song that works better as a dance track than as a rock track. That song is "I Think We're Alone Now", as performed by Tiffany.

The song was originally performed by the group Tommy James & The Shondells back in 1967. It was a pop-rock track that sounded a little fast, but relaxed at the same time. I've heard their version and I don't think that the conflicting rhythm works. It needed more adrenaline, and that's what it got when Tiffany gave it a go in 1987.

The beat was pulverizing...If the original was like a van, this version was like a Ferrari. It was pure, unadulterated dance. The beat and Tiffany's vocals were saying "Put down the drink and hit the floor! RIGHT NOW!". Audiences have been doing that for over 20 years now...Whether people genuinely like the track or are making ironic comments about it, I don't know if I'll ever figure it out, but it's still popular after all these years, and I think that's a major accomplishment on Tiffany's part.
Now, let's slow things down and talk about one of my favorite ballads from the 80s, and believe it or not, it was a cover. The song is "The Greatest Love Of All" by Whitney Houston.

This song was originally performed by George Benson as the theme to the Muhammad Ali bio-pic "The Greatest", but Whitney made the song her own. Benson's version of the song is very good...There's a sense of confidence to it.

I feel that Houston gives the song a spin that says "I'm here, whether you like it or not".

I hear her sing the following lyrics and I hear someone speaking out as loud as they can that they'll keep on going through whatever life can dish out:

"I decided long ago,
Never to walk in any one's shadow.
If I fail, if I succeed,
At least I live as I believe.
No matter what they take from me,
They can't take away my dignity".

It's easy to make jokes about her now, and I've made quite a few, but this song has something about it that works...Something that says "I'm in it for the long haul. What do you have for me? Nothing!".

I can only hope to achieve that level of confidence someday.

One of my favorite songs dealing with subjects like that is the song "The Rainbow Connection". Originally performed by Kermit The Frog in the 1979 favorite "The Muppet Movie", it was covered in 2002 by Sarah McLachlan, and I think her cover is one of the best I've ever heard.

What I like about McLachlan's version is that her vocals bring a dreaminess to it that was only hinted at in the original version of the song. There's a sadness within that, as well. This is a song about hope for humanity. You wake up and turn on the news, and you see a story about a rape followed by a kidnapping followed by a murder followed by news of a hurricane and the cycle continues endlessly. You want to relax, and that's what McLachlan does with her vocals.

She sings lyrics like the following and it's like they're everyday thoughts to her:

"Who said that every wish would be heard and answered when wished on the morning star?
Somebody thought of that and someone believed it and look what it's done so far.
What's so amazing that keeps us stargazing and what do we think we might see?
Someday we're find it, the rainbow connection.
The lovers, the dreamers and me".

Those lyrics may seem stupid to some, but what's so stupid about hoping for something better? McLachlan's vocals don't express any irony about the lyrics...They're just performed matter-of-factly.

Next, I would like to bring up another cover song about rainbows, this time with a speedier feel to it. That song is Me First And The Gimme Gimmes version of "Over The Rainbow" from "The Wizard Of Oz", as performed on the "...Are A Drag" album.

Interestingly, the group also covers "The Rainbow Connection" on this album, but their interpretation of "Over The Rainbow" is what I like. The original is one of the greatest songs of all time, but for all its' greatness, it's awfully sad, too. Me First And The Gimme Gimmes' version of the song makes it sound more upbeat. Whereas Judy Garland's vocals were mournful, this group makes the song sound more like a cry of rebellion.

I apologize for not knowing the band members' names...I don't profess knowledge of the punk genre, I just feel that this version has a great amount of energy to it, and I like energy in a lot of my songs.

Sometimes artists you might not expect to do covers of certain songs do those songs well. One of my favorite examples is Bette Midler's version of The Rolling Stones' 1978 classic "Beast Of Burden".

The cover came from her 1983 "No Frills" album. A lot of Midler's songs haven't really been rock songs, but this song gave her a chance to show off her rock side. A lot of this was stoked on by the video for this song, which featured an appearance by Mick Jagger himself.

The video features Midler and Jagger having love issues, and her impressing him with a rendition of his song. She tears the song up and down, giving her all in a fashion that makes Jagger seem tired by comparison. Midler has always bought energy to all her performances, be they slow or fast. This one was pretty fast and it was stunningly danceable. I recently re-watched the video and I was dancing in my seat. I could probably dance standing up if no one was around.

Oh, and if you see the video (It's on YouTube), you'll see several pop-lockers in the audience. Slowly, but surely, rap culture was making its' way to MTV.

To cap it off, let's bring "Weird" Al Yankovic into the mix. On his 1993 album "Alapalooza", he did his own version of Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody".

When I say "own version", I'm not talking about his trademark parodies, but instead about a straight cover. Well, this cover wasn't straight...It was very askew. His version was called "Bohemian Polka", and it crushed down a very lengthy song into something more compact. The song makes reference to tiredness with life and hoping it'll end at all costs, but "Weird" Al's version is very bouncy, so much that you don't noticed the lyrics. He can surprise you like that. He sings so fast that you may not catch what he's singing until you're older. When I was younger, I just thought he sounded funny. As I grew up, I figured out why I laughed so hard. The lyrics were great

All the songs I've talked about have great lyrics. Crying, laughing, hoping, hard-charging...These covers all have great appeal to me, and I'll listen to them anytime I can. The originals are great as well, but I won't knock ALL the covers. Many covers are absolutely great, but others, not so much:


(Insert puking icon here)

So, with that, the floor is open for discussions: What are your favorite cover songs? What are your least favorite song covers Do you feel that songs should be covered or left alone?
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